Repurposing driftwood along the Delaware coastline
No doubt about it: the inspiration for Gary Crowl’s art was Wah Wah Teh Go Nay Ga Bo. That’s the American Indian name for George Morrison, a 20th-century American landscape painter and sculptor, who became well known for his driftwood collage sculptures. His Indian name means “Standing in the Northern Lights.”
When Crowl first saw Morrison’s work at an exhibition at the National Museum of the American Indian, part of the Smithsonian Institution, a creative light sparked in his mind.
Crowl retired from the U.S. Energy Department at the end of 1999 and then moved from Rockville, Md., to Rehoboth Beach full-time in 2002. A few years later, Crowl began combing the nearby ocean beaches at high tide, but it took him nearly a year to collect enough basic materials before he could start making driftwood collages. Any piece of driftwood that is not a root, branch or limb is a potential ingredient for his artwork, which typically measures 2 feet by 3 or 4 feet.
Crowl will exhibit his creations at the 12th annual Artisans Fair from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday, May 25, at Lord Baltimore Elementary School in Ocean View. In addition to woodworking, the arts and crafts show will feature textiles, sculpture, metalwork, photography, pottery, painting, glass, jewelry and other handicrafts. A farmers’ market will offer produce and specialty foods from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.
The show, sponsored by the South Coastal Delaware AARP Chapter, raises funds for college scholarships for area students.
These days, Crowl looks for driftwood on any shoreline in Delaware — from New Castle to Fenwick Island. To date, he has sold more than 475 colleges. He knows that because he numbers them. Each one comes with a brass plaque that says “Atlantic Driftwood, Delaware Beaches.”
The signature piece included in all his creations is the bottom of a crab basket, which creates a sunrise or sunset motif. The circular shape appears among otherwise vertical or horizontal pieces of driftwood. When he is finished, Crowl signs his name with a branding iron.
Other equipment necessary for this wood artform includes a table saw, band saw and orbital sander.
“Wood that has been battered by the ocean and beaches has rounded edges that gives it a weathered feel. I try not to cut any of the pieces for width — only for length,” Crowl said. The different shape and sizes used create an aerial patchwork look of farmland.
Some of his reclaimed-wood pieces were originally parts of furniture, such as table legs and patio chairs, or wooden paddles/oars, a wooden fish still decorated with paint, a tennis racket, picture and drawer frames, broken baseball bats, doorknobs, and hinges and other rescued metal.
“When I find 8-foot waterlogged boards, I saw them into smaller pieces with a battery- powered saw just to carry them from the beach to my SUV that is often parked a mile or two away. The waterlogged wood can be very heavy,” he said.
Crowl does not do a pencil design, but simply starts fitting pieces together like a jigsaw puzzle.
“Texture is so important both from a visual standpoint and a tactile sense. They are pieces of art that people are compelled to touch and feel,” he said.
Crowl said he does not want any of a collage to look like wallpaper. That is, vertical pieces do not run from top to bottom without being visually broken by another shape, or horizontal pieces do not run from left to right without another piece of wood breaking the line.
When he took his work to the first show at the Rehoboth Art League, he had 10 completed pieces. Eight sold in the first hour, and the ninth sold the next hour.
“I had a show to attend the next weekend, so I spent the next week making a piece a day. Those seven, plus the one that didn’t sell the first weekend, gave me eight. Now I make sure I have at least 20 collages when I attend a show.”
The wood he gathers must dry slowly, because putting it in the sun would make it warp and twist.
“When you cut into the wood, you can smell whiffs of red cedar, oak or even eucalyptus, which was a surprise. Also, when the ocean and beaches wear away the soft wood, you can see the rings of the tree in the end boards I use. It all adds lots of texture,” Crowl said.
Since Crowl spends winters in Arizona, he only has from spring through fall to find the Delaware driftwood and to make his collages. “Making them has a double enjoyment for me: finding unusual beach treasures and seeing the pleasure they bring to the people who purchase the collages inlaid with the treasures,” Crowl said.
The Artisans Fair will have exhibitors both indoors and outdoors, where Crowl will be. Other features of the fair are a baked-goods sale, lunch from food trucks on the grounds, a 50-50 cash auction, silent auction for two quilts and a raffle for items that exhibitors donate to the fair. Admission to the fair and parking are free.
By Ida Christ
South Coastal AARP